Proponents of electric power are hoping to reshape the energy infrastructure in some states, posing a new challenge to oil heat, says John Huber, president of the National Oilheat Research Alliance.
“We’re seeing that trend in Vermont, Maine, Washington State,” Huber says.
Arthur Marin, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, speaking at the Southern New England Energy Conference in Newport, R.I., last year, described one scenario that would emphasize a dramatic transition to electrification of heating in the Northeast, Huber observes.
Advocates of electricity envision electrical cars, electrical furnaces, electrical heat pumps, Huber says. In that scenario, what isn’t powered by electricity will be powered by solar, wind, hydropower and other sources of renewable energy. “It was all about natural gas, but now these states don’t see natural gas as a long-term solution,” Huber says.
Heat pumps are the focus of much attention. “Cold-weather heat pumps that are powered by renewable fuels are basically a zero-emissions game,” Huber notes, “so that’s a challenge for us.”
“We [want to] move to high levels of biodiesel, with highly efficient equipment,” Huber says of the oil heat industry. “Then we can be equivalent or better and take some of the stress off the electricity grid.”
Laying out a hypothetical “best case” for electricity supremacy in a state—say, Vermont—means erecting wind turbines and installing solar panels, Huber says. Further, a project of that sort would require “a super over-capacity of electricity and a super over-capacity of storage for an industry like ours,” Huber notes.
The usual weather variables would apply, having to do with when cold weather would hit, and how cold it would be—and those difficult-to-know factors determine storage needs, he notes. In such a scenario, the advantage of heating oil stands out, Huber says. “You can put a pretty simple tank up and store millions of Btu’s of electricity—probably billions of Btu’s of power that can be readily available, basically for what it costs you to store,” Huber says. In contrast, developing an infrastructure of batteries and wiring to store electric power would be far costlier, and there is an added drawback with the potential losses of electric power as it is transferred, Huber says.
Relying on oil heat would dispatch concerns about the severity of winter weather, and Vermont, in Huber’s scenario, could use its electric resources for electric cars, and residential and commercial lighting – “which are all pretty steady state,” he says.
Besides increasing the biofuels component in heating oil, a critical goal is making sure biofuels improve over time, Huber says. A project in Maine is designed to help do just that. A patented process to transform cellulosic material such as wood waste into a liquid for use in heating oil was developed years ago, and has been used to produce small volumes. Biofine Technology in Framingham, Mass., says it converts cellulose into levulinic acid, which then can easily be converted to ethyl levulinate—the liquid fuel. Biofine described the process in a presentation it prepared for the Northern New England conference last year.
A pilot plant at the University of Maine’s Technology Research Center, part of the university’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute in Old Town, Maine, can process up to a ton a day of wood fiber to make the levulinic acid for conversion to ethyl levulinate, and to make other biofuels and biochemicals, The Portland Press-Herald reported. The pilot plant was undergoing testing to determine whether it could operate on a commercial scale, the Press-Herald reported. The pilot plant is a partnership between Biofine and the University of Maine.
A field test of the liquid, in heating equipment in the households of service technicians in Maine, is being conducted this winter.
Maine is considered a suitable setting for production of the renewable liquid for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that paper mills in the state produce wood waste, the cellulosic material that can be used as the feedstock for the liquid fuel.
“Converting wood to oil, from our perspective, would be a win every which way to Sunday,” Huber says. Scaled up, production would create jobs, and the fuel would have no greenhouse gas emissions, Huber says.
On the equipment side, the industry must compete with the efficiency of natural gas heat pumps. “That’s why we’re looking at development of an oil-fired heat pump,” Huber says, referring to work being done by Dr. Thomas Butcher, director of the NORA Research & Education Center in Plainview, N.Y., and others. Huber calls it “cutting-edge technology” that is undergoing field studies. Cost issues and other matters are involved, as in any “technology leap,” Huber notes, “but we have to start taking steps down that path. If we develop an oil-fired heat pump in 2018 or 2019 that’s marketable, the technology will continue to improve.” Achieving continuous improvement of that technology and of biofuel is vital, Huber says, as it would put the industry in a positive position with regulators in future decades—2030-2050. The aim is to be able to tell state regulators that oil-fired heat pumps with over 100% efficiency are going into the field, using a fuel that has no greenhouse gas emissions, Huber says.
“It’s showing that we have a pathway into the future,” Huber says, “and this will be a priority for 2018.” Showing those with environmental concerns “that we’re not an old fuel that has had its time in the sun,” is the goal, he says, envisioning a day when the industry can say to its critics, “We can be more of a solution than you ever thought we could be.”—Stephen Bennett
Stephen Bennett is the editor of Fuel Oil News.